The Providence Athenaeum
Backstory and Context
In order to properly present all of the histories surrounding this museum/library, it’s only right to first begin with the building itself. According to the libraries’ website, this is a “Greek Revival” style building that was dedicated in 1838 to become a home for this institution. The construction cost was about $18,955.76, and was built on land donated by the Moses Ivan Brown family. Also according to the libraries’ official website, this is the only building in New England designed by the famous architect William Strickland. William Strickland’s major contribution to architecture was his Greek Revival style, which was extremely popular in the America’s between the 1820’s – 1850’s. The main building that sits here today is mostly original; however, some additions to the building have been made. In 1914 an addition was made by Norman Isham in order to give more space to a growing young readership. In 1978 another addition was made by architect Warren Platner, also with the intended purpose on providing more room. With the history of the building itself examined, a look into details about the institution itself is needed.
Like mentioned previously, the Providence Athenaeum came into existence after the merging of two previous institutions (Providence Athenaeum 1831 and Providence Library Company 1753). It originally went simply by the name of “The Athenaeum,” but changed in 1850 to “The Providence Athenaeum.” According to the libraries official website, 195 men, two women, and four business firms raised the initial funds for this institution. It was originally located in the Arcade downtown on Weybosset Street, but finally completed and opened its doors at this location on July 11th, 1838. This library attracted more collections and materials throughout the 19th century. According to its official website, a few notable acquisitions include the Description de l’Egypte, a 23 volume set describing Napoleons expedition to Egypt in the 18th century, as well as The Hours, an ivory miniature painted by Edward Green Malbone in 1801.
The first female employee hired to this institution was in 1872. Her name was Mary Angell, and she was hired as an assistant librarian. According to the libraries website, her main duty was working on a card catalog, which still remains in the libraries main floor. These handwritten cards from the nineteenth century can still be found here. Also according to the official website, Mary’s work was continued by Grace Leonard, who in 1895 categorized the libraries 56,000 volumes into the Dewey decimal system. Grace eventually became the library’s first female head librarian, and worked at this institution for a total of 46 years.
One of the most fascinating facts surrounding this library is the people who have visited here. H.P. Lovecraft, renowned cosmic horror author and Providence native lived only a few blocks away from this library. According to its official website, Lovecraft was a not a member here but made frequent visits to the library and wrote about it in his stories and letters. A quote from him reads, “…our old Athenaeum, where Poe spent many an hour, and wrote his name at the bottom of one of his unsigned poems in a magazine…” (Letter to James F. Morton, May 3, 1923). A beautiful bust of Lovecraft can be found on the main floor of the Athenaeum, and was sculpted by Bryan Moore and donated to the library in August 2013.
Another famous visitor to this museum was Edgar Allan Poe. According to the libraries official website, Poe travelled to providence in September 1848 in order to “meet and court the wealthy Rhode Island widow, Sarah Helen Whitman.” Whitman was from providence and spent a lot of her time at the Athenaeum, where she honed her writing skills as a poet, critic, and spiritualist. She is mostly known for being tied to Poe; however, her writing skills are ultimately what attracted him to her in the first place. There is a very interesting story concerning the two on the libraries official website. Apparently on December 23, 1848, both Poe and Whitman were at the Athenaeum when a messenger delivered a message to Whitman. This message explained how Poe had broken his sobriety and remained a drinker. Whitman called off their arranged wedding and dramatically exited the Athenaeum. According to this story on the official website, the two would never see each other again following this encounter, and Poe would ultimately turn up dead in a year. Whitman outlived him 30 more years and continued her visits to the Athenaeum, always advocating the work of Poe.
This Athenaeum has an extensive amount of history worth exploring. This little glimpse into it has hopefully shed some light on some of the interesting things that have happened here. Like mentioned previously, special thanks is needed to the Athenaeum’s official website as well as Jane Lancaster for providing all of the information given above.
H.P. Lovecraft Biography. biography.com. . Accessed March 27, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/hp-lovecraft-40102.
Lancaster, Jane. Inquire Within: A Social History of the Providence Athenaeum Since 1753. Oak Knoll Pr.